10. An Education
Lone Scherfig’s 2009 film was a breakout for her, screenwriter Nick Hornby, and star Carey Mulligan—who earned a Best Actress Oscar nod for the role—but it’s so much more than a footnote in any of their biographies. A sensitive yet morally murky tale of idealization, disillusionment, and the harsh realities of adulthood, Hornby and Scherfig paint a luxe portrait of upper-class life and head-over-heels romance only to tear it all down in a brutal albeit realistic fashion. Jenny Mellor is an easily relatable protagonist—a charming, ambitious, and naive teen—made all the more so by Mulligan’s endearing and surprising performance.
Jenny’s journey to adulthood emphasizes many meanings behind the film’s title. Caught between her rigid studies in primary school and the unconventional lessons learned by observing her older boyfriend (Peter Sarsgaard) and his friends (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike), it’s clear that Jenny’s destined for a harsh wake-up call. But what elevates Scherfig’s film above most coming-of-age stories is its timeless relevance and socio-political potency. Jenny is a protagonist for all eras; she’s imperfect, resilient, and unabashedly herself. There’s so much to admire in and, fittingly enough, learn from An Education, both from a technical and deeply human perspective. (Cyrus Cohen)
9. Lady Bird
Lady Bird covers plenty of milestones over the course of its title character’s senior year of high school, from first boyfriends to school dances and prom night. But what makes Greta Gerwig’s film a particularly affecting coming-of-age story is how we witness Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) deepen her understanding of the world, and her hometown’s place in it, through her encounters with others. The film taps into Lady Bird’s rich and complicated bond with her mother (Laurie Metcalf), her best friendship with Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and the coming and going of classmates and teachers and spiritual advisors in order to cement that everyone in Sacramento has a story to tell. And these stories all have a way of weaving into one another, of shaping Lady Bird into the young woman she is by the film’s end. Standing curbside in a city she always dreamed of, that final voicemail she sends back home is a powerful bookend to her biggest learning curve; no matter where she ends up, she knows that she’ll always be connected to Sacramento and the people there because that’s how she was raised. (Christina Smith)
If you want to be technical, only the first two-thirds of Moonlight count as a coming-of-age story, with the last third following the main character, Chiron, as an adult. That’s fine, seeing as so many coming-of-age movies end with some sort of epilogue, whether it’s a brief look at the now-grown protagonist, who has been narrating the story, or it’s a series of captions explaining where various characters are now. What’s the value of a rite of passage story if we don’t know the destination?
The Best Picture-winning drama empathetically spotlights three chapters of a young life partly based on that of playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, who also co-scripted the movie. The first chapter portrays Chiron as a child living with a single, drug-addicted mother and coming to the realization that he is gay. The second chapter depicts his first sexual experience as a teenager before he commits an act of violence that lands him in juvie. We skip the final part of his coming of age, though, before seeing him as a grown man. But it’s the kind of film for which we can fill in the blanks thanks to a well-written and -acted conclusion. (Christopher Campbell)
7. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
The idea of rebelling against authority is more appealing during the days of youth. As we get older we learn to make peace with the powers that be because it’s necessary in order to hold down jobs and stay out of jail. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is about the last days of rebellion before it’s time to grow up and accept that nothing will ever be that fun again. In the movie, the titular character skips school for a day of reckless abandon because he knows adulthood is just around the corner.
Of course, while Ferris’ (Matthew Broderick) day of truancy is the catalyst of the story, the film really belongs to Cameron (Alan Ruck). Throughout the course of the movie, he learns to stand up for himself and accept responsibility, which are other key factors of personal growth and maturity. (Kieran Fisher)
6. Stand By Me
Stephen King’s stories tend to feature lots of dead bodies, but Stand By Me is arguably the most powerful of the bunch as death is used to symbolize the loss of innocence that’s synonymous with young people coming of age. While this theme was also explored in IT, Stand By Me’s realism makes it more hard-hitting. According to King, the original story is his most autobiographical work, and the film is a perfect screen translation of it.
The movie deals with some dark subject matter—death, abuse, neglect—but it also captures the feeling that comes with growing up and realizing that life is complicated, for better and worse. But that’s okay, because change is inevitable for everyone, and the journey into adulthood can also be adventurous and full of self-discovery. Stand By Me is about facing life after the protective forcefield associated with childhood is no longer there, and getting ready to embark on the trials and tribulations of life itself. (Kieran Fisher)
Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s first bestseller is perhaps not the first example most look to for “coming-of-age” pictures, but it is nevertheless a beautiful and harrowing capsule of stepping over the threshold into womanhood. Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) experiences it in the opening of the film, a moment where the male gaze is distorted, the mirror cracked. Blood, that disgusting thing that women are not supposed to discuss, is everywhere, from literal menstrual blood to the use of it in the metaphorical, where Carrie weaponizes it for her own revenge. The tragedy is clear from the start: we find out that she knows nothing of periods, and her ultra-religious mother has kept her from anything that might tempt her to sins of the flesh. As a result, she has left her child completely alone in a cruel, cruel world, and as Carrie undergoes a baptism of blood and fire, the heartbreaking tragedy is that she leaves her world without being given a proper chance at surviving her coming-of-age period. (Charlie Brigden)
4. Eighth Grade
Bo Burnham pulls off a couple of impressive balancing acts with Eighth Grade. For one, he delivers an honest coming-of-age story that’s grounded in the social media generation, all while forgoing any finger-wagging about how kids and teens engage with the Internet. These platforms are simply a constant in protagonist Kayla’s (Elsie Fisher) life, an outlet for the connection and loneliness she already feels in equal measure. But Eighth Grade also captures an awkwardness and earnestness that is universal to anyone who’s gone through middle school and lived to tell the tale or even anyone who has felt Kayla’s insecurities at their present age. Burnham just understands that sometimes we feel like that nervous kid climbing the steps to a popular kid’s pool party. And sometimes we need that exact kid to call out to us and tell us that everything is going to be okay. (Christina Smith)
3. The Breakfast Club
While the characters in John Hughes’ classic are typical teen archetypes, each one of them is rooted in genuine emotion that most young people will be able to relate to in some way. The film takes a group of misfits from different backgrounds—all of whom are forced to spend a day in detention together—and comes to the conclusion that the angsts faced by adolescents are often similar, as being on the cusp of adulthood is an uncertain time for most people.
Granted, Hughes’ exploration of existential fears came from white, middle-class perspective, and there are elements of the movie that are quite gross, such as Bender (Judd Nelson) sexually harassing Claire (Molly Ringwald) throughout the film without receiving any repercussions. That said, The Breakfast Club’s core ideas and emotional power are universal and can’t be understated, and those are the elements of the film that have ensured its staying power after all these years. (Kieran Fisher)
2. The 400 Blows
The debut of Antoine Doinel (aka François Truffaut’s on-screen doppelganger) in The 400 Blows changed coming-of-age cinema forever. Not only was the main character played by an actual child, the boyish Jean-Pierre Léaud, but it is based on actual events from Truffaut’s life. This basis in reality is what gives this tale of an adolescent boy a unique touch while making it an essential pillar for the French New Wave movement.
Antoine’s want to raise a little hell is relatable. What we would call a pre-teen rebellion nowadays was just a kid’s response to the environment around him, a flawed structure that expected too much from a creative mind. Who wouldn’t want to skip school, go to the movies, and smoke cigarettes? The 400 Blows is a reaction to the underlying societal turmoil, first felt by the youth and reaching a peak in the infamous year of 1968. The best part about loving this movie is knowing that it is just the first of four feature films and a short that exists in The Adventures of Antoine Doinel series. (Shea Vassar)
1. City of God
“If you run, the beast catches you; if you stay, the beast eats you.” It’s all right there in the poster’s tagline. Escape is fruitless. Resistance is futile. Give in. Live the best you can today, because tomorrow isn’t coming. Directors Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund pull no punches, revealing the business of apathy in a kid-eat-kid world. City of God is grim, ugly, painful, and wretchedly accurate to the corruption fueling government and law enforcement in Brazil. We tend to look back at childhood as a warzone of hormonal transition. What many deal with in youth cannot compare with what’s experienced in this utterly heartbreaking film. (Brad Gullickson)